Many a moon has passed since the days of my brief brush with TV stardom, or whatever one might dare call it. I mostly think of them as the do-or-die years: picture, if you will, the confused young man hurtling dangerously towards the flash-in-the-pan at sound-breaking speed. Or, on a more positive note, forced education, with decent dividends in the short term. Either way, it was a scary time when so-called TV actors weren’t eagerly received into the fickle fold of film folk.Fortunately, I was more than determined—even desperate—to break away from my ascent/descent. The chances were nearly impossible, until the likes of John Waters and Tim Burton had enough courage and vision to give me a chance to attempt to build my own foundation on my own terms. Anyway, no time to digress . . . this has all been said before.
I sit here, hunched at the keyboard, banging away on a ratty old computer, which does not understand me at all, nor I it, especially with a zillion thoughts swirling through my skull on how to proceed with something as personal as an update on my relationship with old pal Tim. He is, for me, exactly the same man I wrote about nearly eleven years ago, though all kinds of wonderfulness has flowered and showered the both of us, and caused radical changes in the men we were and the men we’ve become—or, at least, the men we’ve been revealed as. Yeah, you see, Tim and I are dads. Wow. Who’d have ever thought it possible that our progeny would be swinging on swing-sets together, or sharing toy cars, toy monsters, even potentially exchanging chicken pox? This is a part of the ride I had never imagined.
Seeing Tim as proud Papa is enough to send me into an irrepressible weeping jag, because, as with almost everything, it’s in the eyes. Tim’s eyes have always shone: no question about it, there was always something luminous in those troubled/sad/weary peepers. But today, the eyes of old pal Tim are laser beams! Piercing, smiling, contented eyes, with all of the gravity of yesteryear, but bright with the hope of a spectacular future. This was not the case before. There was a man with, presumably, everything—or so it seemed from the outside. But there was also something incomplete and somehow consumed by an empty space. It is an odd place to be. Believe me . . . I know.
Watching Tim with his boy, Billy, is an enormous joy to behold. There is a visible bond that transcends words. I feel as if I’m watching Tim meet himself toddler-size, ready to right all wrongs and re-right all rights. I am looking at the Tim that has been waiting to shed the skin of the unfinished man that we all knew and loved, being reborn as the more complete radiant hilarity that exists full-blown today. It is a kind of miracle to witness, and I am privileged to be near it. The man I now know as a part of the trio of Tim, Helena and Billy is new and improved and completely complete. Anyway, that’s enough of that. I’ll step off the Kleenex box and get on with things, shall I? Onwards . . .
In August of 2003 I was in Montreal, working on a film called Secret Window, when I received a phone call from Tim asking if I could make it down to NYC for dinner the following week to discuss something. No names, no title, no story, no script—nothing specific. And, as always, I said that I would be there happily, ‘I’ll see you then,’ that type of deal. And so I did. When I arrived at the restaurant, there was Tim, tucked away in a corner booth, half in darkness, nursing a beer. I sat, we enjoyed for the first time the fantastic, ‘How’s the family?’ exchange, and then zoomed immediately to the subject at hand. Willy Wonka.
I was stunned. Amazed, at first, by the outrageous possibilities of Tim’s version of the Roald Dahl classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but even more floored that he was, in actual fact, asking me if I would be interested in playing the role of Wonka. Now, for any kid who grew up in the 70’s or 80’s, the first film version starring Gene Wilder (who was a brilliant Wonka) was an annual event. So there was the kid in me who was giddy that I should be, in this case, the chosen one for the part. But there was also the ‘thespian’ in me who understood very, very well that every actor and their mother and that mother’s brother’s uncle’s third cousin’s pet iguana’s goldfish would have hacked each other up into tiny morsels—or at best, gladly knocked each other off in a more civilized fashion— clamoring, gagging for the chance that was being presented to me by one of the people I admire most. I was also keenly aware of the many battles with many studios that Tim had had to endure over many years to secure my involvement on the various films we’d already done together, and it made every kind of sense to me that he’d probably need to take the gloves off for this one. I couldn’t believe my luck . . . I still can’t.
I think I probably let him finish a sentence and a half before I blurted out the words, ‘I’m in.’ ‘Well’, said he, ‘think about it and let me know . . .’ ‘No, no . . . if you want me, I’m there.’ We finished our dinner with more than a few tidbits and amusing ideas about the character of Wonka and, of course, traded the occasional nappy-changing story, as grown men who are dads are wont to do. We ventured out into the night with a handshake and an embrace, as grown men who are pals are wont to do. And I then handed him the complete set of Wiggles DVDs, as grown men probably shouldn’t do, but do anyway and deny later. We said goodbye and I then wandered off back to my day-job. Several months later, I found myself in London to begin the shoot.
Our early discussions of Wonka had been incorporated and we were ready to play. The idea of this solitary man and the extreme isolation he’d inflicted upon himself—and what effect this might have—was a colossal playground. Tim and I had explored many areas of our own pasts with regard to the various layers of Wonka: two grown men in serious consultation, debating the merits of Captain Kangaroo versus Mr. Rogers, even spicing things up with a dash of, say, a Wink Martindale, or Chuck Woolery, two of the finest game-show hosts ever to crack the boards. We were navigating through territories that would eventually wind up bringing us to tears, laughing like teenage school chums. Sometimes we even traveled into the arena of ‘local’ kiddie-show hosts, who in some cases could be defined as being just this side of mimes, or carnival clowns. We braved some treacherous possibilities and discarded all things unnecessary. My memories of the process are a gift that I’ll treasure always.
The experience of shooting the film with Tim was as good as anything gets. To me, it felt as if our brains were connected by a blistering hot wire that could have generated sparks at any minute. There were moments in certain scenes where we’d find ourselves precariously high on an unbelievably thin thread, trying to work out just how far the limits were, which would only give birth to more absurd notions and mirth.
To my surprise, while shooting Charlie he invited me to play another part in his stop-motion feature Corpse Bride, which he was working on simultaneously. The size and scope and commitment level of these projects if taken on one at a time would have been enough to drop a horse. Tim glided effortlessly from one to another. He is an unstoppable force. There were plenty of times when I was unable to fully grasp his inexhaustible, almost perverse energy.
All told, we worked hard and had an absolute ball. We laughed like mad children about everything and nothing, which is always about something. We shamelessly swapped imitations of some of our favorite entertainers of days gone by, such brilliant individuals as Charles Nelson Reilly, Georgie Jessel, Charlie Callas, Sammy Davis Jr (always), Shlitzy (from the Tod Browning film Freaks), et cetera. The list could go on and on and on, ad infinitum but, the names would get more and more obscure and our readers might just derail. We’d dive into these deep philosophical conversations concerning whether or not the guests of the Dean Martin Roasts were actually in the same room together when the show was taped—and became really super-worried that maybe they weren’t.
His knowledge of film is staggering, far into the obscure and downright scary. For example, in conversation one day at work I happened to mention that my girl, Vanessa, has a thing for disaster films, and preferably bad ones. Right away, Tim’s side of our gabbing became incredibly animated, the hands waving and zigzagging dangerously through the air. He rattles off a list of things I’d never heard of in my life. We settled on a couple of humdingers that Tim tracked down from his personal library for us—titles like The Swarm and When Time Ran Out. And then, for good measure, he’ll break out something a bit more soothing like Monster Zero, or Village of the Damned. The point is, his relationship with cinema is not, even in the slightest sense, jaded. He has not tired or bored of the process. Each outing is as exciting as the first.
For me, working with Tim is like going home. It is a house made of risk, but in that risk, there is comfort. Great comfort. There are no safety-nets, for anyone, but that is how you were raised in that house. What one has to rely on is simply trust, which is the key to everything. I know very deeply that Tim trusts me, which is an amazing blessing, but that is not to say that I am not always paralytic with the fear of letting him down. In fact, that is first and foremost in my thinking as I am approaching the character. The only elements that keep me sane are my knowledge of his trust, my love for him, and my profound and eternal trust in him, coinciding with my hefty yearning to never disappoint him.
What more can I say about him? He is a brother, a friend, my godson’s father. He is a unique and brave soul, someone that I would go to the ends of the earth for, and I know, full and well, he would do the same for me.
There . . . I said it.
Dominica, West Indies